Workers’ history on display

Proud Display
PROUD DISPLAY: This is a look at the new annex with the museum’s prize Harrison Machine Works steam engine on display. – Labor Tribune photo

Belleville celebrates big addition to Labor & Industry Museum


Illinois Correspondent

Belleville IL – Labor in this region has its share of ups and down and the occasional disagreement, but there’s one shining highlight that everyone in the movement can be proud of – that little museum in Belleville.

The Belleville Labor & Industry Museum held its second grand opening on Oct. 25, showing potential for a future that holds no bounds.

The first grand opening was in 2002, when the place opened in an historic building, just north of downtown that had been a residence, machine shop, cigar factory and beauty salon.

The second grand opening celebration was for a new addition, built by union volunteers, that nearly doubles the space available for displays and events.

Lunch Break
LUNCH BREAK: This sculpture on display in the museum is a recreation of the famous photo of ironworkers on lunch break high over New York City during the construction of Rockefeller Center. – Labor Tribune photo

A full house of more than 200 people turned the event into a celebration of labor and the community working together to accomplish something special.

“This was a joint venture, a prime example of labor and management working together. One couldn’t have done its part without the other,” said Bill Thurston, president of the museum board and of the Southwestern Illinois Central Labor Council. “It took a lot of time, a lot of patience, a lot of begging, and a lot of people making donations for us.”

In his remarks, Thurston noted that the addition is 2,500 square feet, painted in the color “Cherokee rust,” and eventually will have at least 230 names of individuals and companies on its patrons plaque, which hangs on the northwest corner wall beneath one of the museum’s prize possessions, a sculpture by Lou Michaels based on the famous photograph of Ironworkers having lunch while sitting on a beam high above New York during construction of Rockefeller Center.


Thurston said planning for the addition began shortly after the original opening.

“We knew something had to be done to expand, due to the fact that so many artifacts were being donated to the museum for preservation,” he said. “We needed more room.”

The city and St. Clair County Clerk Tom Holbrook, who was a state representative at the time, secured a state grant that covered half the cost of the addition, but the museum board had to raise the rest.

What made all the difference was that dozens of union workers volunteered their time and expertise. Construction began in 2009 and proceeded slowly but steadily.

“Organized labor stepped up and made it possible with donated man-hours by retired journeymen, working journeymen, apprentice programs, funding and materials,” Thurston said.

The board was committed to spending only the money it had available. “To date, we are debt-free,” he said.


In the new addition, some new displays were already showing up along the side walls and in corners.

Two old-time drill presses are mounted and look like they are ready for use. J.C. Gideon, a retiree from Belleville, was among those who enjoyed seeing them.

“A lot of people will be coming in to see these things. It’s a real asset to the community,” he said.

Local Publishers
LOCAL PUBLISHERS: A new display in the annex focuses on old-time printing in Belleville, with a press, supplies and samples. The display includes photos of early local publishers along with a box of type. – Labor Tribune photo

They are only a few feet away from the home of another prize possession, an enormous, wheeled “Jumbo” steam engine built by Harrison Machine Works in Belleville in 1895. It was parked just outside the annex for the day.

In another corner was a substantial new display about early local printers and their equipment and supplies, focusing on local English and German newspapers dating back as far as 1857. A box of metal type dates back to 1840.

Boy Scout T.J. Hollansworth, 17, of New Athens, made the display his Eagle Scout project, helping to plan and prepare it and getting other Scouts to help set it up.

Judy Belleville, who spent 25 years as chairman of the Historic Preservation Committee, is the collections coordinator for the museum and has been working to collect, restore and research the items. She is looking for more volunteers to help with the ongoing work.

The event was attended by several public officials up for re-election in the Nov. 4 election, among them U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart of Belleville, state Sen. James Clayborne of East St. Louis and state Rep. Jay Hoffman of Swansea, all Democrats.


Clayborne, in his remarks, recalled how union work in steel mills gave his grandfather the opportunity to establish a family here after he moved from Mississippi in the 1920s. Both of Clayborne’s parents were able to attend college and become teachers and union members.

How We Worked
HOW WE WORKED: J.C. Gideon of Belleville demonstrates how the drill press was used. – Labor Tribune photo

“When you look at other countries, you recognize there are extremely rich people and extremely poor people, and the difference is there are no unions in most of those countries,” he said. “Unions have given families an opportunity to be a part of the middle class and raise their children and give them hope and opportunity.”

Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert, who has helped with development of the museum, thanked the museum supporters for providing the city with an important educational attraction. He had just come from the dedication for the Belleville Walk of Fame, another celebration of the city’s 200th anniversary.

“I just want to say thank you,” he said. “This is important to our city. It’s important to reflect on our past, it’s important as we build and move forward.”

Eckert noted that one of his sons is a union carpenter.

“He’s out there learning every day from the older carpenters. He wants to learn everything he can,” Eckert said. “When I look at the trades here and their professionalism, and I look at the quality, it’s just refreshing.”

Enyart noted that he had served for a decade on the city’s Historic Preservation Commission.

“This is another great example of the community working together – looking forward to the future but remembering our history, and remembering what it is that’s built this great America that we love,” he said. “It’s labor and it’s management and it’s government, and it’s by working together as a team that we accomplish so many things.”


Talking History
TALKING HISTORY: State Rep. Jay Hoffman (D-Swansea) chats with museum supporters Pat Wright and Pat Schmeder at the recent grand opening of the museum’s annex. Behind them is one of the museum founders, Harold Wright. – Labor Tribune photo

Mike Hutch, a dedicated museum volunteer who gives tours and serves as secretary-treasurer of the board, didn’t give a speech but said he was delighted to see the annex finally open.

“We’re the best-kept secret in the city of Belleville,” he said. “We’re kind of a small-potatoes museum. If we have a few people every week, we’re happy.”

Thurston reminded those in attendance that many more displays are on the way.

“This is only a small part of it,” he said. “You have to come back to see the rest of what we have.”

The Belleville Labor & Industry Museum, at 123 N. Church St., is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays and at other times by appointment. Call 618-222-9430 to arrange a visit.

For more information, or to view an online catalogue of items in the museum’s collection, visit

To contact Illinois Correspondent Carl Green, send e-mails to

One Comment

  • Enjoyed the article and the photo of the lunch break sculpture. Good point about the unions supporting a middle class.


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